The Department of Government
The Department of Government

Walter Dean Burnham Returns

Mon, February 1, 2010

Walter Dean BurnhamPolitical scientists disagree about many things. That Walter Dean Burnham is a legend is not one of them. Revered by colleagues – who have cited his work more than 2,000 times – the University of Texas at Austin, in the parlance of that day, executed a real coup wooing Burnham away from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology 22 years ago. Decades later, it is hard to argue that a more renowned scholar has held permanent residence in the Department of Government before or since.

Dean Burnham is a quintessential academic. Above all, he is a factory of knowledge. Long before he arrived in Austin, graduate students at MIT marveled at the fact that when asked, point blank, what party came in second in the Berlin municipal elections of 1892, Dean Burnham knew the answer. That same intellectual repository wowed graduate students in Austin, some of whom only half jokingly questioned if Burnham’s IBM typewriter had an Ethernet connection. The typewriter itself was legendary – for the syllabi that bore its mark until his retirement in 2003 (now the subject of a Walter Dean Burnham Syllabus Restoration Project), and because the sound of the keys banging told students in no uncertain terms: Don’t bother knocking. That is not to say Burnham was unavailable to his students. Quite to the contrary, he has been praised for his dedication as teacher, appreciated for the bottomless bucket of research topics he consistently dumped on scholars-in-training, and thanked to this day (if silently) for the lecture notes his former students now pass off as their own.

A self-described “data rat,” Burnham follows in the V.O. Key, Jr. tradition of burying oneself in the data and occasionally looking up to tease the story out. Burnham’s first serious foray into data collection was Presidential Ballots, 1836-1892, published in 1955, which he wrote one summer outside of Baltimore, leaving the typewriter on the picnic table during periodic cool downs in a swimming hole. Since retiring, Burnham, professor emeritus and Frank C. Erwin, Jr. Centennial Chair in State Government, has completed a life’s work. Burnham could often be seen in the department office making copies of old historical records. Now, after a lifetime of heroic data collection, the American political universe has been recreated and published; Voting in American Elections: The Shaping of the American Political Universe Since 1788 is a monumental data archive documenting turnout in U.S. elections since the Republic’s founding. And this publication is, according to Burnham, “literally the tip of the iceberg” of his collection. With time and good fortune there should be more to come – 1868 election data by ward in New York City, with 150% turnout, for example; his comprehensive state-level data back to 1834 should provide endless fun for the next generation of data rats.

Dean Burnham loves studying politics, and it remains infectious. For many young scholars who moved through the department’s graduate program in the 1990s, hearing Burnham analyze the 1994 congressional elections – “The Republican Revolution” – was a career-defining moment. Burnham’s regular post-election analyses on the sixth floor of Burdine Hall – known affectionately as the Burdine Penthouse – persist as department lore. For undergraduates, too, a Dean Burnham lecture was no ordinary event – not many scholars can, with aplomb, explain American politics through combined reference to Seinfeld, the Whiskey Rebellion, tectonic plates, and a mountain of statistics and have it make perfect sense, let alone be stimulating. But Dean Burnham did, on a regular basis.

American elections are somewhat unique in the democratic West in that, unlike most countries, where turnout is respectably high and constant, turnout in American politics is a highly contingent variable. And Burnham’s data collection adds much to our understanding of American exceptionalism. A favorite question of comparative political science is why social democracy never advanced in the United States to the extent it did elsewhere across the West. Burnham offers a very powerful clue – a political universe of voters who share far more in common with each other than they do with the other half of the political universe, a systematically demobilized group of nonvoters. It is not, Burnham argues, that class never existed in the United States, but that class never voted in the United States.

To be held Friday, Feb. 5, The J.J. Pickle Speaker Series in American Institutions and Public Policy, in conjunction with the Department of Government and the Andrews & Kurth Centennial Professor in the UT School of Law, has organized a symposium to mark the release of Burnham's new book. It is a daylong event promising to be one for the ages, and all are cordially invited to attend. More event details can be read here.

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